Digital warriors battle to get African games on phones

An illustrator works on a digital drawing board at the Kuluya Games office at Anthony district in Nigeria's commercial capital of Lagos June 16, 2014. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

By Andrew Heavens and Drazen Jorgic LAGOS/NAIROBI (Reuters) - Safari the warrior crouches in the bush - a digitized heroine from the new mobile phone game "Afro Fighters" that its Nigerian creator hopes will soon rival the likes of Clash of Clans or Angry Birds on the world's handsets. To achieve this, Olakunle Ogungbamila is preparing to take on a lineup of challenges as daunting as any of the muscular opponents on his new app, even the game's arch foe the Dark Lord of Oti. Industry analysts have long hailed the explosive growth of mobile telecoms in sub-Saharan Africa - 635 million subscribers by the end of 2014 climbing to 930 million by the end of 2019 according to a report by Ericsson. But size isn't everything. It is the quality of those mobile phone connections, subscriptions and surrounding infrastructure that is holding up Africa's nascent games development industry, not the quantity of handsets. The number of expensive smartphones that can run sophisticated games and applications is low. They will account for only 14 percent of African mobile connections by the end of 2014, about half the global average and less than a quarter of the penetration in north America, says research group Ovum. "That is the number one obstacle. It is changing rapidly though," says Ogungbamila, sitting in the office of his Kuluya Games - two long rows of desks squeezed into a glassed-off partition on part of a floor of a Lagos office block. He would like more deals with telecoms companies to let him process payments, more skilled developers, better, cheaper mobile broadband and, one day, more funding to make full-blown console games for the Xbox and PlayStation. He would also like more of his customers to have bank cards and accounts, to make it easier for them to send in small payments for charge-ups and extra characters in games. "Collecting money is still an issue," he says. Around 80 percent of Kuluya's revenue currently comes from making branded mini games and apps for other companies, rather than adverts and purchases in its own titles, says Ogungbamila. On the other side of the continent, in the cramped office of Nairobi's Planet Rackus, Mwaura Kirore splits his time between designing games and running an advertising company. Those well-paying advertising clients get the bulk of his time at the moment, he concedes. "I don't think anyone in Kenya can make a living out of gaming yet ... We're just at our infant stage in terms of what we're doing. But we are in for the long haul." AFRICAN STORIES Planet Rackus's game MA3Racer sends rickety minibus taxis zig-zagging across a motorway next to a lion-infested park. Kenya's careering "matatu" minibus taxis are a national institution and the game's name plays on their nickname stemming from the Swahili word "tatu" meaning "three", which derived from either the number of fare coins or seat rows, or both. Planet Rackus's first edition of MA3Racer, a 2D mobile game, had more than a million downloads on Nokia's Ovi platform, reflecting strong demand. The company's designers are also working on a new sci-fi adventure where the evil lords will have character traits of African strongmen past and present, including Uganda's Idi Amin, Congo's Mobutu Sese Seko and Zimbabwe's own Robert Mugabe. Kuluya's website lists just short of 50 titles. Highest ranked in the Google Play Store include Afro Fighters, Keke – where you guide a rickshaw taxi down a dirt road, a big hit in India says Ogungbamila – and the adventure game Masai. Ghana's Leti Arts offers mobile comic strips combined with games - Africa's Legends, staring Pharaoh and Shaka, and Ananse: The Origin, based on a character from West African folklore. The idea is to draw in local players with local content, always looking out for a storyline that could turn into a franchise popular enough to cross borders in Africa and beyond. If possible, they also want to change the way Africa is portrayed when it does appear in Western games - generally as a bloody backdrop for shoot'em-ups - such as the excursion into the Niger Delta in 'Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier'. "In the West, they take Greek history or Greek mythology and they spin it into multi-billion dollar entertainment entities," says Kuluya's Ogungbamila. "There are lots of African stories that haven't been told. With Ananse, you have a very cunning character with spider-like powers from the days of ancient Africa ... before Spiderman existed," says Leti co-founder Wesley Kirinya. CHEAPER SMARTPHONES For all the challenges, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. One is the spread of cheaper smartphones. An iPhone 5 or a Samsung Galaxy S5 might be out of reach for many. But a Chinese-made Tecno M3 handset, with Google's Android operating system, was on offer for 13,000 naira ($80) at Abuja's open air Emab shopping mall. In February, Chinese chip designer Spreadtrum Communications unveiled the innards of what it said would be a $25 smartphone. But many of the cheaper smartphones still lack the power for more ambitious games, says Ogungbamila. Even the cheaper smartphones are still out of reach for the vast majority of customers with small incomes and pre-paid mobile accounts - many of them charging up call by call on scratch cards. Ovum puts average revenue per user (ARPU) in Africa at $6 a month, compared with $48 in north America. But Africa's economic growth should lead to a bigger middle class with more money and time to sit back with their handsets and push around pixels for fun. "African games developers have to gamble on the growth of smartphone devices – and that growth is there," said Johannesburg-based Ovum analyst Thecla Mbongue. "But there are challenges. Is the future bright? I would say it is mixed." (Additional reporting by Helen Nyambura in Johannesburg; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Anna Willard)